Updated: Dec 16, 2018
In the Yoga Sutras, author Patanjali explains the Eight-Limbed Path as one method that may be used to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
The Yoga Sutras
The Yoga Sutras is widely considered to be the first comprehensive guide to yoga. Although yoga is mentioned in a number of texts that are thought to predate the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali was the first to compile a complete set of guidelines with yoga as the singular focus. He explains that the purpose of practicing yoga is to lead a more spiritually-rich life, breaking attachments and existing habits to develop a higher level of awareness, which will ultimately lead to the highest goal of achieving of spiritual enlightenment.
On the surface this may sound like an impossible task, but Patanjali describes a number of paths that may be taken in order to reach this goal. Like many ancient Indian philosophies, there is no "one size fits all" approach, thus the practice of yoga may look very different to different people.
The Eight-Limbed Path is one approach to practicing yoga that is detailed in the Yoga Sutras. It is relatively well known by modern-day yoga practitioners around the world, as many popular style of yoga are based on this approach. It is the only method that mentions the physical practice of Asana (posture), which is the form of yoga that most people are familiar with today.
Aside from Asana, the Eight-Limbed Path discusses a set of moral and ethical guidelines (Yama and Niyama) which lay the foundation for the remaining steps on the journey towards spiritual enlightenment. Other aspects include: breath control (Pranayama), sensory control and withdrawal (Pratyahara), deep concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana), and ultimate bliss (Samadhi).
The Eight-Limbed Path
Yama: restraint (things not to do)
Niyama: observance (things to do)
Pranayama: breath control
Pratyahara: sense withdrawal
The Eight-Limbed Path in Practice
In most modern-day yoga classes, teachers provide instruction on one or more pieces of the Eight-Limbed Path. It is difficult to find a class where some form of Asana is not present, and in many classes, Asana is the primary focus. Pranayama is generally mentioned along with asana, but the level of instruction may be minimal. Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana are often lumped together and taught, to varying degrees, under the increasingly popular title of "meditation". Samadhi is the ultimate goal of all other effort, and most people (gurus, teachers, and students alike) will never reach this limb.
Some teachers may theme their classes on principles taken from Yama and Niyama, but generally these two limbs, which make up the yogi's "code of conduct", are incorporated into one's life on a more personal level. Yama includes five personal restraints: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-attachment, while Niyama includes five ethical observances: cleanliness, acceptance, self-discipline, self-study, and devotion to a higher power.
The practice of yoga is a personal journey. Those who connect with and follow the Eight-Limbed Path have the opportunity to enjoy a well-balanced physical and spiritual practice, with unbounded potential for personal growth. Whether the work is done in or out of the classroom, on or off the mat, as with any yoga path, a committed practice will lead to a better life.